The Grammar Factor: writing in the third person, double possessive

Third person writing

A reader’s comment about the conversational use of ‘you’ (see ‘Pet peeve’ below), and the article referenced below about ‘we’, made me think about the use of third person writing.

In formal business writing, such as board papers and business cases, most writing guidelines encourage writers to use the third person.

The third person pronouns are ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘they’, but because business documents are impersonal, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ are seldom used. The names of groups or organisations are more appropriate for business writing in the third-person (KPMG stated…).

Advantages of the third person
The main advantage of the third person point of view is that it makes the writing seem more professional and objective when presenting facts and reasoning. Third person writing provides some distance between the reader and writer.

You can still express your personal opinion (e.g. the preferred option…), but it needs to be backed up by facts or evidence, rather than just stated as your own belief.

Disadvantages of the third person
Sometimes writing in the third person can veer into officialese with unnecessarily long words and unwieldy sentences. You can avoid this by writing clearly and using plain language.

The NSW Law and Justice Foundation has a list of plain language alternatives for about 200 terms often found in official papers (e.g. use ‘so’ instead of ‘accordingly’.)

I’ve written a blog on this subject offering some tips on how to write in the third person.

Reader’s question: double possessive

Reader’s question: Why do the first two questions have an apostrophe (Paul’s), but not the last one (ladies at the end of the sentence)?

  • That was a good idea of Paul’s.
  • But there was one small trait of Paul’s that made Rainsford uncomfortable.
  • There were two ladies in our class and Paul was a good friend of the ladies.

Answer: The apostrophe usage in the first two sentences is known as the double possessive or double genitive. The last sentence is not a double possessive.

The Chicago Manual of Style says the ‘possessive form may be preceded by of where one of several is implied. “A friend of Dick’s” and “a friend of his” are equally acceptable.’

The double possessive is usually only used with people (friend of my aunt’s), not inanimate objects (friend of the museum), and ‘of’ is usually preceded by something indefinite (e.g. a good idea, not the good idea).

You could rewrite these sentences to avoid the double possessive.

  • Paul’s idea was good.
  • One of Paul’s traits made Rainsford uncomfortable.

Sometimes the double possessive can add clarity. For example, a sentence such as This is Mary’s photo could be a photo of Mary or a photo taken by Mary. The double possessive in this instance would make it clear that Mary took the photo.

 This is a photo of Mary’s.

I realise that I haven’t addressed the question about why the sentence about the ladies is not a double possessive. I cannot come up with a rational explanation, so I am throwing that question open to you. Please email me. Thank you.

Reader’s pet peeve

A reader commented about how the conversational use of ‘you’ can backfire. The use of ‘you’ is meant to engage the reader and make them think that they and the writer are in agreement. But it can make the reader think the opposite.

For instance, take the following statement: ‘We all know sugar adds calories, but you don’t think of sugar being in bread.’

The reader may think ‘Of course bread has sugar’ and lose respect for the writer.

Interesting articles about writing

What do you mean, ‘We’?
When do you use the first person plural (we) and why do you use it? The author of this article maintains that some writers use ‘we’ to refer to a proportion of the general population that probably doesn’t include themselves. Read more.

A dictionary of phony phrases
If someone says ‘this is for your own good’, you know they’re about to give you some unwanted advice that won’t be pleasant. Read more.

New questions and answers from The Chicago Manual of Style Online.
An example is:

‘Q. In an online user documentation set, is “Appendix” or “Appendixes” the correct top-level heading? Under this heading, there will be multiple unrelated topics. Is each one an appendix? Or should I refer to the group of topics as the appendix? Since this is online, I do not intend to use “Appendix A, Appendix B,” and so on. I will use descriptive headings such as “Working with Nontemplate Databases’ Deprecated Features.”

‘A. You are the best one to decide. If you use “Appendixes,” give each topic its own page and list the links using the descriptive heads as page titles. If you use “Appendix,” put all your topics on a single page, with the descriptive heads serving as subheadings. If the topics are truly unrelated, or if there is an advantage to having a unique URL for each one, then the former option is probably best.’

Quote of the month

‘Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.’
William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction


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